When a huge clap of thunder startled the dozens attending rain-soaked Canada Day festivities at the community complex this month, it had an even bigger impact on John Kettle. The first instinct of the four-term Regional District of Central Kootenay director was to run for cover.
“I’ve been shot at too many times,” he said, when he regained his composure.
Kettle wasn’t talking about the potshots regularly aimed at elected officials — his reference was to his two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1966-67.
The Texas drawl came later in life. He was born and raised in a public housing project in Denver, Colo.
“I learned to fight when I was pretty young,” he says. “It was a tough area.”
His mom eventually moved her family to the suburbs, where he was “average in academics, because I was lazy.” Attending the University of Colorado didn’t exactly float his boat, either, so he packed it in to go to work.
He landed a job with Coors Industries, in the public relations department, which led to his first opportunity to visit Canada. He was sent up to explain the effect beverage container taxes were having on the brewing industry.
Coors took a different tactic, voluntarily implementing its own Cash for Cans program and developing an industry-leading recycling program for glass and aluminum. He acted as spokesman for the giant brewery in all matters to do with recycling and environmental issues.
At the age of 25, in Couer d’Alene to visit an old friend who had become a Coors distributor, Kettle took advantage of his proximity to Canada to come north to Kootenay Lake for a holiday, but not before “filling up my car with pizza and winter supplies.” (It was summer, but Canada was north.)
His first stop after crossing the border was at the Sirdar Pub, where he was surprised to find men and women drinking in separate rooms.
“I asked the men how they met women,” he laughs.
He camped at Gray Creek.
“I sat and looked at the lake and the mountains and I thought that I would always come back,” he recalls. “That was about 40 years ago and I haven’t missed many chances to return.”
With Coors, he eventually became vice-president of Coors Glass, the largest glass plant in the world, producing 1.3 million bottles a day.
In 1974 he accepted a job offer from a persistent entrepreneur in El Paso, Texas.
“I’d never been to Texas and I didn’t want to go, but the offer was too good to resist.”
His job there was to travel as a representative for oil and gas sales, mostly into Mexico.
“Eventually, I started my own company and we (he and his wife, Marilyn) embraced Texas as our own state,” he says. “Our four kids were born there.”
During a downturn in the economy in the 1970s, Kettle made the decision to move north into Canada “and I’ve never looked back. I decided to chase my dreams instead of chasing the dollar.”
John and Marilyn raised their family on a ranch they had purchased at Meadow Creek, near Yahk. Kettle ran a guide-outfitting business and raised cattle.
“Marilyn and I got involved in community activities and I fell in love with hockey,” he says. “I can organize and I can raise money, so it was a good fit.”
He worked with the NHL hockey hall-of-famer to form the John Bucyk Honour Role “to make sure kids were as good off the ice as they were on.”
In 1996, he became a citizen, and in 2001, with the encouragement of former Nelson-Creston MLA Corky Evans, ran for a director’s position on the Regional District of Central Kootenay board.
“It was a four-man race and I did win, and I’ve been working my butt off ever since, quite frankly,” he says.
In politics, he admits, big wins are rare, “but you keep moving forward for the good of the people.
“If you need thanks for what you do, don’t run for public office. I just try to do the best job I can. You won’t make more friends the longer you are in office, but you will make more enemies. People don’t remember the 19 times out of 20 they were happy with what you did, just the one time that they weren’t. I volunteered for this, though, so I can’t complain.”
Now in his fourth term, and 10th year, of office, Kettle has become a major player on the local political scene. He chaired the administration and finance committee on the RDCK board before accepting a nomination to run as board chair. He is now serving his second year at the head of the table. And he’s only the second ever Creston Valley resident to assume the chair’s position.
Kettle also made local history by becoming the first ever Creston Valley representative to serve as chair of the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District, which oversees capital spending in the area by the Interior Health Authority.
If Marilyn, his wife of 40 years, worries about seeing too much of her husband, she can relax now that he also has become chair of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Treaty Council, with which Kettle can put his many provincial and federal political connections to good use.
“I’ve learned that you really don’t have a private life when you hold public office,” he says. “When you go to the grocery store and restaurants and the like, you will get the good and bad, but you won’t be ignored.”
“Don’t worry about the mule,” he says, unable to let a conversation pass without a Southern aphorism, “just load the wagon.” (Creston town manager Lou Varela was still laughing the next day when she thought of Kettle, embarrassed by the town’s presentation at a meeting, saying, “I feel like we brought a knife to a gunfight.”)
Politics at any level, Kettle says, is not for the faint of heart.
On the downside, he says, there are negative impacts on marriages and family life.
“But my guiding principle is to leave it better than we found it,” he says. “If you can do that, you’ve succeeded.”